Design

PSYCHEDELIC, BABY!

A showcase of Canadian design from the sixties evokes the groovy spirit of the times

JOHN GEDDES February 28 2005
Design

PSYCHEDELIC, BABY!

A showcase of Canadian design from the sixties evokes the groovy spirit of the times

JOHN GEDDES February 28 2005

PSYCHEDELIC, BABY!

Design

JOHN GEDDES

14001

contompra phone

. . swinging into spring with the zingiest colours this side of an Easter bonnet. Nine CONTEMPRA colours from warm white to mod mauve. And that sleek, slim profile - it nestles in your hand like you were made for each other. The Phone debuts March 3. Call Miss Lead Line, local 7141,

(for non-contact Plant employees it's 5101): have her pick out a colour for you.

IT’S HARD TO GUESS what will strike visitors first about the unofficial muse of the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s new Cool ’60s Design show—those eyelashes, that leg, or the fabulous Contempra phone she’s holding? A big blowup of her photo from a 1969 ad campaign for Northern Electric’s hit fashion telephone is strategically situated near the entrance to the exhibit. For those old enough to remember the decade, the image will dial up good vibrations. Younger museum-goers, who may know little more about the sixties than what they’ve learned from Austin Powers movies, will have their own reaction: yeah, baby! Which is not inappropriate. But look again and ponder. Is it possible to imagine that the BlackBerry, today’s trendy Canadian telephonic device, could be marketed so lightheartedly? No way. Technology now trumps style, and sex appeal is more brash than breezy. The sleek phone and swinging

model are a package deal that tells a story about how the shape of design and the spirit of the times go together.

The Contempra was the first phone designed and made in Canada. Unveiled in 1967, the centennial year, it sold in nearly 20 countries for almost two decades, making its lead designer, John Tyson, an industry legend. It came in mauve, deep turquoise, dark blue, bright red, pale yellow and warm white—and Alan Elder, the museum’s curator of Canadian crafts, decorator arts and design, boasts his show will display every shade originally on offer. He expects many visitors to have fun picking out the ones they remember, and then to experience the same sort of consumer nostalgia looking at, among other things, Canadian-designed lamps, chairs and Thermos bottles. “They’ll see something and say, ‘Oh, the people down the street had one of those,’ ” Elder predicts.

The show—which opens on Feb. 25 and runs until Nov. 27 at the Gatineau, Que., institution, across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill—offers more, though, than a chance to go twisting down memory lane. Along with familiar products like the iconic Contempra, it encompasses everything from one-of-a-kind craft items to institutional architecture. It’s remarkable just how much memorable homegrown design the decade produced, and how big a part it played in the spread of new notions of national identity. (A companion show at Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada features bold 1960s painting and sculpture, but lacks the design exhibition’s nostalgic hook.)

One revelation is how airport architecture was used to create a modern Canadian image. In fact, a case can be made that the sixties began in Canada on June 19, 1959, in Gander, Nfld., with the opening of the first

A showcase of Canadian design from the sixties evokes the groovy spirit of the times

of more than 20 suave airport terminals the federal government built across the country. The aim was to create a first impression of sophistication, conveyed through details like Robin Bush’s “lollipop” chair, whose round seat and back echoed Toronto’s new circular terminal. “They wanted the airports to show we weren’t living in log cabins,” Elder says.

The idea of government relying on design to foster national pride was a key element in the decade’s biggest showcase for neat stuff: Expo 67. The Montreal world’s fair was an international event, of course, but also an unprecedented spree for Canadian designers. There were slick lights, unusual chairs, Paul Arthur’s brilliantly simple pictographs, and the jumbled children’s block pile of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat apartments. Elder brings special enthusiasm to the Expo part of his show. He visited the fair as a 12year-old on a public school bus tour from

Burlington, Ont., in May, 1967. “I knew every square foot of Expo before I even got there,” he remembers. “I had my guidebook. I bought into everything—all the media hype.” And why not? Expo at once amplified and concentrated a potent strain of ’60s optimism. There’s a tendency to attribute that feeling to sexual liberation, political change and electric music. This exhibit serves as a reminder that molded plastic, clean lines and bright colours also contributed mightily.

Missing is any inkling of anger or unrest. “When we were first talking about the show, so many people came up with images of riots and upheaval,” Elder says. “But in Canada it wasn’t like France or the United States.” Canada had its quotient of counterculture, but no wars, cities aflame or politicians assassinated. (In the summer of 1968, when America was mourning Robert F. Kennedy, Canada was in the grip of Trudeaumania.) Arguably,

Canada’s initiation into the epoch’s deepest anxieties didn’t occur until 1970’s October Crisis. Until then, Canadians could, for the most part, give themselves over to products—a surprising number of them dreamed up here—that conveyed a sense that the future had arrived and was groovy. Clairtone stereos came complete with an LP, invitations and instructions for throwing an “absolutely shocking” party. Rotaflex plastic hanging lamps looked like our own Alouette satellite.

A note to boomers thinking of taking in the show. Wandering from object to fun object, prepare to feel first that rush of recognition, next a desire to own these things again, and finally the realization you can’t take your favourites home. One can always resort to vintage stores specializing in design from the middle of the last century. But be prepared: demand from those callow Austin Powers fans has pushed up prices. I